Each decision that an engineer or designer makes in creating a new product has far-reaching implications for the end-customer, of course, but also for the supply chain and for the environment. Making smart design decisions up front has the potential to reduce waste throughout the supply chain, ensure adherence to regulatory demands, and make the end-product more recyclable and longer-lived.
For the designer, designing for the full life of the product becomes a balancing act. A variety of factors, including manufacturability, costs, durability, recyclability, and user experience, must each be considered and weighed.
"Especially in electronics, the supply chain is very messy and very complex," said Carole Mars, research manager for the electronics, toys, general merchandise, and home and personal care sectors for the Used Electronics Management Innovation Workgroup at The Sustainability Consortium.
A number of realities in the electronics industry add to the difficulty in addressing design-for-environment questions. "Electronic parts are being miniaturized, and the more miniaturized they are the harder it is to take the product apart and recycle it," said Wayne Rifer, director of research and solutions for the Green Electronics Council. "In addition, products are being manufactured with more types of material in them."
Open the windows
Further, the complexity and breadth of the supply chain can get in the way of understanding the full implications of design choices. "The first challenge is understanding the supply chain beyond first-tier suppliers," said Karl R. Haapala, assistant professor at the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering at Oregon State University. "There is a lot of opacity around what's happening beyond that point," Haapala added. "OEMs should work to know where materials come from, what processes have been used in making them, and even the workforce that is being used."
Open lines of communication can lead to better and smarter product design decisions. Contract manufacturers and electronics distributors are working to do their part by providing free information on how to design in an eco-friendly way with different parts.
"Companies like Avnet, Arrow, Mouser, and Future Electronics are putting together better design guides, and a bunch of contract manufacturers, including Jabil and Flextronics, are doing the same thing for developers," said William Lumpkins, chair of the 1874P Standards Working Group at the IEEE. "By working together, everyone saves a lot of money and hassle."
Reduce, reuse, recycle
As a first step, it's critical to consider the full life cycle of the product when creating a new design. "The funny thing about this is that it's not a new idea," said Lumpkins. "Now, though, OEMs are realizing that everyone will save money. It's starting to come together and there's a convergence."
In designing for the environment, it's important to think carefully about how to use materials more efficiently. "There's a lot of environmental impact that can be traced back to the types and amounts of materials being used," said Haapala. "We have to figure out how to design to do more with less, essentially, and that's a big challenge."
Further, designers need to think about the environmental impact of a product through its entire life and use. Kyle Wiens, chief executive officer at iFixit, a crowdsourcing community that encourages users to fix products themselves, outlines the basics:
"There are three aspects of sustainability:
- What's the environmental impact of manufacturing?
- How long can you make the product last?
- How effectively can the product be recycled?
The last two are pretty closely tied together, since things that are easy to recycle are also easy to repair."
In addition, the designer must work to balance the concerns and competing interests of other departments within the organization, from manufacturing to marketing. For example, a designer can minimize the amount of materials used in a product, and the marketing department may complain that the product doesn't feel substantial enough to satisfy the customer. Or a design may use screws rather than glue in order to maximize recyclability and repair, but the user demand for thinner and lighter products may swing the pendulum toward a design that streamlines through the use of adhesives.
Sometimes, maximizing one aspect of a product, such as its robustness, can interfere with another, such as recyclability. "It's always a challenge to balance between longevity and ability to disassemble something at end of life," said Mars.
OEMS can and should work to balance between these differing needs by making trade-offs. The ease of replacing subsystems is one major component of how readily a product can be repaired or recycled. "The fundamental thing we look at in judging an electronics [device] is how many subassemblies it has," said Wiens. "It has to be readily disassembled."
The big picture
Clear communication is a critical starting place to achieve truly successful design for environment. Designers, for example, need to understand clearly the processes and needs of recyclers and refurbishers.
"If a designer really wants to design for environment, he has to understand the fate of the product and talk to the people who are handling the products then," said Mars. "By talking to refurbishers and recyclers, they can find out the problems at the end that can be addressed during design."
Further, all of the organizations within the supply chain, from electronic component manufacturer to end-user, need to make design for environment a priority. "Industry acceptance is worth devoting resources to this initiative," said Mars. "I don't think there's resistance to the idea, but it hasn't been promoted as much as it should be."
By creating clear communication between design and recycling, OEMs can understand better the limitations of recycling various elements and the recyclers can better understand the new elements being designed into products. "In products today, steel, aluminum, lithium, and other elements are being brought into the recycling stream, and there's a question of how those elements can be retrieved," said Rifer. "We have good technology for copper, gold, silver, aluminum, precious metals, and ferrous metals. More and more, though, companies will use harder-to-recycle materials."
Perhaps the most effective solution would be to create a national recycling program, but, at least in the United States, there's a long way to go. "The EU is a leader, and if the US wants to do something the right way, they need to model it on that program," said Mark Schaffer, owner/consultant of consultancy Schaffer Environmental LLC. "What the EU has implemented is far from perfect, but it's a good starting point." Some large OEMs have made great strides in product recycling programs, he added, pointing to Dell and HP as prime examples.
Consumer education will be another big piece of the puzzle. End-users need to understand how to measure and judge the products they buy to ensure they are championing products and brands that work to make products both repairable and recyclable. That can be a hard sell, especially when a product is popular for its look and feel. The same decisions that maximize consumer appeal make it prohibitively expensive for the recyclers to process. Institutional buyers, who wield the clout of buying a large amount of products, have the greatest potential for encouraging OEMs to design for environment. "Institutional buyers buy by specifying all the specifications that they want and then, to get the business, the manufacturer has to meet those specs," said Rifer.
By creating a loop that starts with the designer and ends with the recycler, OEMs can create products that will win from a sales standpoint and still be winners when measured for sustainability.
This article originally appeared in the Avnet Velocity e-magazine, The Sustainability Balancing Act.